When I was in college, our campus police department distributed a list of rape prevention tips to female students. The tips were ostensibly tips for general safety but were packaged with a nice big dollop of sexism. They included items such:
- “Women often sit in their car and update their checkbooks after doing their shopping. Leave your checkbook in your purse and immediately lock your doors when you get into your car.”
- “When walking at night, don’t be distracted. Put down your compact and lipstick and stay aware of your surroundings.”
- “Be cautious on a first date. Consider going out with mutual friends rather than one-on-one.”
Ridicule quickly descended upon the department. Not only was the advice fairly ineffective, but it portrayed women as dimwitted morons who wandered around in a perpetual state of distraction.
It also ignored the fact that many women regularly practice these safety techniques. The list came off as mansplaining the very things that women already realized they had to do.
The biggest problem was that many of the tips, such as the advice to avoid having anything “girly” in your vehicle or wearing “flashy clothing,” encouraged women to lead a minimal, boring life just to ward off potential rapists. In other words, women are eternally expected to suppress their existence.
Women shouldn’t be held responsible for their assault. Doing so implies that there is such a thing as “rapeability.” There is not.
There is only the decision to rape.
The most damning thing about those rape safety tips was that they were not only sexist, but they also implied that normal activities would put women at risk.
That’s where these tips fail, and that’s the point that the critics miss.
Those who insist that “rape culture doesn’t exist” are quick to cite normal behavior as a risk factor for rape.
They complain that women drink too much. While not advisable, it’s not something unusual. Plenty of people have a few drinks too many, and nothing worse than a hangover happens to them. Why is alcohol suddenly the reason that someone gets raped?
They complain that the women are dressed skimpily. Not only are such clothes in fashion, but this also implies that men are simply wild animals who can’t control their urges. That’s sexist.
They complain that women walk alone at night. Again, nothing about that is inherently risky unless they are in a city where no one should walk alone at night.
Risky behavior is visiting a known gang leader’s home in the middle of the night.
Risky behavior is driving 100 mph down the highway.
Risky behavior is wiring money to a stranger halfway around the world.
These are risky behaviors that anyone might engage in. And yet when women do normal, everyday things such as checking their makeup or walking to their car at night, they’re told they’re increasing their risk of rape.
And that does one very powerful thing.
By asking women to live quietly and modestly, we’re giving rapists a pass. We’re saying that rapists can’t help themselves.
Rather than blaming the Big Bad Wolf, we blame the red hood.
Most rapes are not knife-wielding strangers leaping out of bushes or secret psychopaths who lure a woman to the torture chamber in their basement. Some are, and that’s why women do walk quickly to their car or text a friend where they’re going on a date. Still, none of those tips work in the face of the common rapist.
That’s because many rapes don’t manifest the way they do in the movies. They’re perpetrated by people — men or women — who misunderstand the concept of consent. Rapists force themselves onto people who don’t want sexual contact. Often, the victims are not in a position to refuse.
I have heard many, many stories of rape, and of the dozens of people I know who have been raped, none of them could have avoided it by following those “rape prevention tips.” The attacks happened in immensely complicated situations that frequently involved manipulation, abuse, or drugging. And when some of them sought help, law enforcement officers were quick to shift the blame to them. One of my friends even had a cop laugh at her.
Let’s stop pretending that women simply need to shape up and stop being so flashy and ditzy. Let’s stop pretending that we can’t take a very simple approach to the problem of rape.
Tell rapists to stop it.
“We do,” you protest. “They know it’s wrong.”
Except they don’t. They often don’t even understand that they’ve done it. And when they do know it’s wrong, they see that other rapists, even violent ones, serve only 3 months in prison.
Why should they stop?
If we punish rapists rather than the victims, if we make it clear that we will persecute them rather than laugh at the victims, we can make a difference. We can establish the opposite of rape culture with a clear statement that rape will not be tolerated.
Right now, we tolerate it. We tolerate the fact that 20 percent of women will experience sexual assault in their lifetimes. We snicker when it’s done to men. We sigh and shake our heads when we hear of yet another rape on a college campus. At the border. On the exam room. In the married bedroom.
Rape is still a punchline — especially when it happens to men. It’s the only violent crime that’s regularly treated as a joke.
It’s time to flip the script.
There’s only one “rape prevention tip” that we should need.